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Why tonight's homework may involve reading comics

Steve Gorton | Dorling Kindersley | Getty Images

It's not uncommon for parents to come home and find their kid reading a comic book.

But these days, it might be for homework.

"The content isn't just superheroes and zombies, although that has its place," said Stephanie Gabelmann, director of Boonton Holmes Public Library in Boonton, N.J., in a phone interview.

Gabelmann spoke on a panel about comics and the Common Core at New York Comic Con last week. "There's a huge amount of comics about science, history and even math. Students are getting the information, but in a different way."

For example, there's the newly released "March: Book One," the first in the autobiographic graphic novel trilogy from Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., about the civil rights movement. Another oft-cited example: Art Spiegelman's Holocaust narrative "Maus," which in 1992 became the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Studies indicate the visual nature of the medium may aid learning. Earlier this year, a University of Oklahoma study reported that graphic novels were as helpful as textbooks in teaching key concepts (in that case, in the subjects of business and strategic management).

A second part of the study found students studying graphic novels were better able than textbook users to recall passages verbatim.

"Even if they were just equivalent, comics are something people just tend to like better," said study co-author Jeremy Short, a professor of strategic management at the University of Oklahoma's Price College of Business. "There's more enthusiasm from the students. This is one more tool in our tool kit to help educators."

At Williamsport Area High School in Williamsport, Pa., students in John Weaver's honors English and British literature class start asking on the first day when they'll cover Alan Moore's "Watchmen"—which Weaver has taught for the past six years. "They are always excited about it," he said in a phone interview.

Weaver, who spoke on a New York Comic Con panel about using comics in the classroom, told the audience that the graphic novel is a launching point to discuss serious issues.

Before students start reading the graphic novel, they research and present reports on cultural and historical topics related to the text, such as the Manhattan Project, the Cold War and punk culture; discussions during the unit cover issues including conflict of moral systems, sexuality and vigilantism.

Still, comics can be a tough sell. Panelists said it's not always easy to gauge the reading level of a graphic novel, which can make it a tough sell amid new standards. Parents and administrators may also object to what they see as questionable content or unchallenging reading material, said Gabelmann.

"We're not saying get rid of the textbook and give them a graphic novel," she said. "Use it to supplement."

By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @kelligrant

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